Bangsamoro region ‘lesser than ARMM’ feared

MANILA, Philippines – The Senate and the House of Representatives approved  the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), but watered down the proposed powers of the new region it will create to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

The approved versions fall short of government commitments in the peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), forged to end the decades-long conflict with the dominant Muslim rebel group. 

The string of substantive amendments to the original version of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) sparked fears that the Bangsamoro region in the final version will even be “lesser than ARMM” and betray the intent of the measure.

“A BBL far lesser than ARMM, in powers and authority, is not the BBL we aspire for. Anything less than the status quo is unacceptable. Be mindful of the amendments. The devil is in the details, they say,” Assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong posted on his Facebook page on Wednesday night, May 30, as senators deliberated on BBL in the plenary.

ARMM local government units already exercise powers to conduct cadastral surveys, for example, but the Senate removed this. 

Lawmakers also pressed for technical language in the law that stakeholders see as a symbol of their struggle for self-determination, revising the Preamble to remove such declarations. A historical recognition that Moros once occupied Palawan, giving its residents "the right to identify themselves as Bangsamoro, was removed.

Next battleground: Bicam

The passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law brings the implementation of the peace deal with the MILF closer to reality – a success by itself. (READ: 'A vote for Bangsamoro is a vote for Filipinos')

ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman celebrated the passage of  BBL. “We express our gratitude to the 17th Congress, and to the men and women who stayed the course to pass this law,” he said in a statement on Thursday, May 31.

But the work is not over and, fortunately for the stakeholders, the amendments are not final.

The real battle for the powers of the new Bangsamoro region will take place during the bicameral conference committee hearings, when the Senate and the House reconcile their versions of the proposed law. 

Senators and representatives most supportive and most critical of provisions in the proposed law make up the bicameral panel. (READ: Bicam panel: Who will finalize the Bangsamoro law?)

Hataman highlighted the need to make the final version compliant with the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) signed between the government and the MILF in 2014. 

“We in the ARMM continue to push for a BBL that is compliant with the previously signed Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, as the passed measure is brought to the table of the bicameral conference scheduled next month,” he said.

The MILF is expected to push hard to restore removed provisions.

'Massacred'

These concerns tempered celebrations for the passage of the BBL. Marawi resident Drieza Lininding, who was at the Senate to witness the deliberations, said the original version of the BBL was “massacred.”

Dapat ba tayo magbunyi at matuwa dahil sa wakas maaprubahan na sa Kongreso ang BBL? Kahit alam natin na ito ay na 'masaker' at binago mula sa orihinal nitong bersyon ng BTC?” Lininding said in his Facebook post.

(Are we supposed to celebrate and be ecstatic because Congress finally approved the BBL? Even if we know that it was 'massacred' and amended from the original version of the BTC?)

Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, was forced to accept amendments during marathon hearings. His repeated appeals to retain provisions the BTC fought for fell on deaf ears.

Debates were faster in the House, but major amendments were also introduced there.

Heated debates

Senate debates heated up towards midnight on Wednesday, hours after the House passed the BBL.

At one point, Senator Risa Hontiveros stood up to call on her colleagues to support the implementation of a long delayed peace agreement. Debates were also suspended several times for government peace advisers to appeal to senators proposing amendments.

Among the significant amendment in the Senate is the deletion of a section listing the reserved powers of the national government, effectively removing the Bangsamoro region’s power over all other areas not on the list.

The Senate also abolished the proposed power of the Bangsamoro government to create, divide, merge, abolish, or substantially alter provinces and cities.

In the House, Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Isagani Zarate lamented how the proposed law was “downgraded” in terms of territory. He voted against the passage of the BBL. 

The congressional representatives allowed only one plebiscite for cities and provinces to decide whether or not to join the Bangsamoro region. The BTC version proposed to hold a plebiscite every 5 years for a period of 25 years.

Isang mahalagang usapin din ang pagtanggal sa exclusive control ng Bangsamoro ng power and energy, natural resources, public utilities, Bangsamoro police, at iba pa (The removal of the Bangsamoro region’s exclusive control over power and energy, natural resources, and public utilities is also an important topic),” Zarate said.

Both chambers also lowered the Bangsamoro region’s annual block grant – its share in the national internal revenue – from the proposed 6% (P72 billion) to 5% (P59 billion).

The schedule of the bicameral conference committee hearings have yet to be announced. It is expected to have its report ready for ratification on the morning of July 23, when Congress resumes session for the 3rd Regular Congress, in time for President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature before his State of the Nation Address. – with reports from Mara Cepeda and Camille Elemia/Rappler.com